Friday, June 12, 2009

The big switcheroo

Musings as I’m listening to the running commentary on the switch from analog to digital television…

It seems there are people living in low-income communities who have not managed to make the switch yet. I understand that. People who have chaotic lives or limited skill sets often end up living in low-income areas. So those are the areas where you would expect this problem to arise. And I even understand the comments from social workers who non-judgmentally observe that many families in these areas have their televisions on for many hours each day and are going to have their lifestyle severely disrupted until they can get their converter boxes.

What I don’t understand is the idea that if someone is temporarily without television service they will not be able to hear important emergency broadcasts. There are two problems with this assertion. In the first place, anybody—anybody—can afford a radio. In the second place, when there is severe weather, digital television signals are disrupted anyway. So there is no earthly reason for anyone to rely on television for those announcements.

Less is more
Our television is in the basement, which is in serious need of remodeling before it becomes a comfortable place to sit and watch television. I’ve gotten out of the habit of watching, and I have to admit, as people told me for years, my life has improved as a result. But I’m not preaching that you or anyone else should stop watching. I’m just suggesting that it is really not—not—a necessity of modern life.

The switch to digital television means that signal breakup will become a regular occurrence for many people, and that may lead them to turn off the set in frustration. Maybe they’ll do something else in their spare time. Read a book, perhaps?

Buggy whips
Nobody ever argued that getting around by automobile was an improvement on traveling by horse and buggy in the sense of being more pleasant or better for the environment.

In our time, we now have three examples of the same transition, and all have to do with digital communication:
  1. First we’ve experienced the massive adoption of cell phones. That’s all well and good. The convenience of cell phones is wonderful. But we’ve traded down on the quality of voice communication. When was the last time you had a call between two landlines on which the other person’s voice dropped out or the call was dropped and you had to redial two or three times before giving up? And family calls that were once shared by picking up another extension are now private conversations with one household member who then has to pass the phone around or summarize the call after it’s over. That changes social relationships in a subtle way.
  2. Out with CRT displays, in with LCD displays. The switch to LCD monitors is saving a tremendous amount of energy, house by house and office by office. The difference is noticeable on electric bills. New hotel rooms can be designed two feet shorter because of flat televisions. Great. But for computer users there’s a subtle loss. An LCD monitor has a fixed native resolution, unlike the analog CRT. Changing the resolution to accommodate a visual problem doesn’t really work (although there are other strategies). And some users are not happy with the image quality, particularly in situations where color matching is critical.
  3. And now we have broadcast digital television. When the signal drops because of cloudy weather or wind causing a tree to sway, the program is gone. With analog television, a weak signal was still a signal. With digital television, it’s there or it’s not. There’s no such thing as poor but intelligible reception.
In all of these cases, we gave something up when we abandoned the older technology. There’s no going back. You can still buy a handmade buggy whip. But to the best of my knowledge you cannot buy a CRT monitor or television made with a mouth-blown picture tube.

At least books will never be obsolete, he said, whistling past the graveyard.


Peter L. Winkler said...

As a former videophile who owns an analog CRT and who owns two laptops with high quality LCD screens, I prefer LCD displays for their lack of geometric distortion.

I went through three Sony WEGA CRT TVs a few years ago. They all exhibited significant geometric distortion. Worse, it was asymetric. I finally found one with a mild barrel stave distortion, but it was even on both sides so it was tolerable.

Dick Margulis said...

I like my LCDs too. But some people are already regretting that they can no longer get a CRT to replace their beloved Trinitrons.

In any case, my comment was more about the way we as a society react to certain types of change, not a comment on the technology itself.